Samuel Barber: Sure on this Shining Night
Although perhaps most well-known for his orchestral works and concertos, Samuel Barber is also celebrated for his huge input into vocal and choral music. Barber composed over 100 works for voice and piano, with a majority still unpublished. Sure on this Shining Night is from his Four Songs set (Op.13) and is widely regarded as one of his finest contributions to the genre. The song is still popular today and is regularly programmed and performed around the world.
Sure on this Shining Night was based on an untitled lyric from James Agee’s first published collection of poems under the title Permit Me Voyage. Barber and Agee became close friends over time, with Barber also setting Agee’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. The lyrics are as follows:
Sure on this shining night
Of starmade shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder
Wandering far alone
Of shadows on the stars.
The level of lyricism that Barber achieves in this short song shows his seamless talent in composing for voices. From the lyrical canonical lines that intertwine with the pulsating chordal-style piano accompaniment to the magical textures that Barber creates, Sure on this Shining Night is a shining light. The quiet upper vocal lines add a sonorous effect to the music, with the words such as ‘shining’ and ‘wonder’ being highlighted.
The ever-developing texture moves in ebbs and flows across the voices, creating waves of small climaxes. The simple piano accompaniment keeps the waves of movement heading towards the end of the song. Sure on this Shining Night finishes quietly, with the voices finally uniting together to sing the final line before the piano plays one final chord.
Part of the popularity of Sure on this Shining Night has also come from Barber’s anecdote of the song which he told frequently. It is surmised here:
“In 1979, Barber had just moved into a new apartment in New York city and needed to call home. He was trying to reach Gian Carlo Menotti, whom he knew was visiting the apartment. However, upon trying to dial the number from the telephone booth, Barber realised that he could not recall the newly established phone number. The composer contacted the operator for assistance who initially refused to provide Barber with the number, but confessed that she possessed a “weakness” for Sure on this Shining Night and requested that Barber sing the song’s opening phrase to confirm his identity. Barber complied and was rewarded with his telephone number!”
Ⓒ Alex Burns